SIOUX CITY – This wasn’t the way the Sioux City Explorers hoped to see their 2017 season finish, but at least it was a happy ending.
Dylan Kelly’s leadoff double in the bottom of the eighth-inning Monday afternoon helped the X’s rally for two runs that snapped a 2-2 tie, delivering a 4-2 victory over the arch-rival Sioux Falls Canaries in a Labor Day season finale at Lewis and Clark Park.
The win not only denied the Canaries a split in this year’s 12-game season series, it also allowed Sioux City to finish one game better than its I-29 rival after both teams entered play with identical records.
On the heels of back-to-back American Association Central Division titles, an Explorers team plagued by injuries like never before concluded its 25th anniversary season with a 46-54 mark. With a 7-5 season edge on the Birds, the X’s have won the I-29 bragging rights 17 times while also splitting with Sioux Falls in two of the rivals’ other eight seasons.
“It’s a good way to end the season,’’ said fourth-year Explorers Manager Steve Montgomery. “It’s bittersweet because it’s over now. I wish I had another game planned for the next couple days (the league’s four-team playoff chase starts Wednesday), but it was very, very hard this year.
“I don’t think it’s a year that any of us are happy with, but with the turnover we’ve had with players (due to injuries and three key performers lost to major league organizations), I think it was far-fetched to try to stay atop our division. Putting a good product on the field (in spite of adversity) is something to be proud of.’’
Righthander Ryan Flores, taking over for starter Hobbs Johnson with Sioux Falls on top 2-1 after four innings, turned in three shutout innings in his last of a team-leading 44 appearances. That set up bullpen mates Chris Powell and P.J. Francescon for a win and a save, respectively.
More impressively, three more strikeouts for the 24-year-old rookie from Kerrville, Texas, made him the first reliever in franchise history to lead the team in strikeouts. And, with 94 in his 78 innings of work, he surpassed Rob Wort’s previous club mark of 92 two seasons ago as an all-time high for Sioux City relievers.
“Ryan’s background is just crippled with injuries and everything,’’ noted Montgomery. “We just have to do our darnedest to get him into some (affiliated) camp next year.’’
The X’s caught a break when Canaries ace Grady Wood, 8-3 with a 2.71 ERA that ranked fourth in the league, was scratched from an anticipated start due to back spasms. That forced the Birds to split the day’s work among five pitchers. One of those was backup infielder Tyler Wolfe, a former Kansas State standout, whose one inning of work was a scoreless fourth frame.
A leadoff walk to Michael Lang helped the hosts tie the game 2-2 in the fifth inning after LeVon Washington singled and Nate Samson walked to load the bases with nobody out. Although a much bigger rally seemed likely, at least Eudor Garcia’s sacrifice fly to right field for the second out got the game knotted up.
That’s how it stayed until Kelly opened up the home half of the eighth with a drive to right-center field that one-hopped the wall for a double. Garcia followed with a line-drive single to center, putting runners on the corners.
After a strikeout, the game wound up turning on Daniel Jackson’s chopper to third baseman Patrick Fiala, whose throw to the plate sailed over the catcher’s mitt for an error, letting Kelly score the go-ahead run while Garcia moved over to third. A sacrifice fly by Joel Davis, then, provided a welcome insurance run
Curiously, it all added up to a contest in which all nine batters in the lineup made an offensive contribution as the first seven men in the order each had one hit while the last two were hitless with an RBI apiece.
“It was nice to see some of our younger guys come through right there,’’ said Montgomery.
The skipper of Sioux City’s only back-to-back playoff appearances with the division titles the last two years, Montgomery took the X’s helm in 2014 after 13 seasons with the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks, the last 10 as the Hawks’ pitching coach.
With the recent firing of Manager Doug Simunic, the only manager the RedHawks have known since their inception in 1996, rumors have swirled that Montgomery is the frontrunner to take over that club. The 43-year-old from Mecca, Ohio, helped the Hawks win their second Northern League title in 2003, his final season as a pitcher, and then served as a coach as the team reigned three more times (2006, 2009, 2010).
Fargo-Moorhead, which relieved Simunic of his duties with less than a month left in the season, has made only two playoff appearances in seven American Association seasons, none since Montgomery came to Sioux City. And, after the league’s wild-card race saw a wild finish Monday, the Hawks missed out again despite finishing in an unprecedented three-way tie for the best record by a non-division winner (see X’s AND OH’s).
“As of right now today, I want to come back,’’ said Montgomery. “Even though there’s a nine-year contract in place (awarded to Montgomery two years ago by team owner John Roost), it’s not my call.’’